The Green Economy: Reconceptualizing the Natural Commons as Natural Capital

green economy graphic Abstract: The green economy is an emergent approach to sustainable development launched at Rio+20. Herein environmental decision-making is increasingly achieved through economistic processes and logic. The natural commons are quantified and managed as natural capital. This paper summarizes the trajectory of the project and its ideological framework. It examines various conceptualizations of economic approaches to the environment and considers philosophical, methodological, and political problems associated with the green economy project. In the face of very different definitions of what constitutes a green economy, environmental communicators face a situation characterized by discursive confusion as the complexity of natural capital accounting processes conceal new political configurations. Counter movements argue that the green economy program is performing ideological work that uses language of environmentalism to obscure an intensified agenda of neoliberal governance and capital accumulation. The concept now has contradictory meanings. Environmental communicators have an important role to play in exposing the contested nature of the project and in helping to define the emerging green economy. Published March 13 in Environmental Communication. 50 free downloads here (until they are used up – please do not use if you have institutional login)

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Design/Ecology/Politics: Towards the Ecocene

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Today I signed a contract with Bloomsbury Academic Publishers for a book called Design/ Ecology/ Politics: Towards the Ecocene, due to be published 2017.

Design/Ecology/Politics describes a powerful role for design in creating sustainable futures – once informed by ecological literacy and critical perspectives. The book moves the debate in sustainable design beyond its narrow focus on the design of marginally more sustainable consumer products. Designers have expertise in influencing subjectivities. Ecological theory explores the philosophical problems at the root of the environmental crisis. Social theory describes the social and political function of design. This book examines the relationship between these three domains. While there are prominent movements in design working towards socially responsive practice, these efforts are hampered by the manner in which power relations are constructed, reproduced and obfuscated by design. Revealing these dynamics creates new possibilities for transformative practice – i.e. design which will create ways of living enabling human prosperity over time. It will be available in October 2017 for $19.99.

Design vs. the Design Industry – Paper for the DRS 2014

Design vs. The Design IndustryPaper to be presented at Design Research Society’s conference DRS 2014.

Design can be understood as a practice that evolves as new cognitive and perceptual capacities enable a greater understanding of complexity, context and system dynamics. These emergent capacities create greater potential for social and technological innovation. This paper will argue that despite emergent skills, designers are not able to effectively address contemporary problems in a sustainable manner due to the systemic priorities of the design industry. This paper theorises ‘design’ as the professional practice of creating new products, buildings, services and communication as a broader practice than the work that is produced within the ‘design industry’. The design industry operates according to highly reductive feedback generated by capitalism that systemically ignores signals from the ecological and social systems. The exclusive focus on profit results in distortions of knowledge and reason undermining prospects for the design of long-term prosperity within the context of the current political/economic regime.

Download the paper here.

Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’

The paper Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ was presented at the International Environmental Communication Association’s 2013 conference Environmental Communication: Participation Revisited: openings and closures for deliberations on the commons in June. This paper can be downloaded on www.academic.edu and on the EcoLabs website.

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ABSTRACT: The United Nations’ green economy programme radically re-imagines the commons as a space where ecosystems services will be quantified, marketised and traded. This paper will examine issues with this version of the green economy for environmental communicators. It will review the etymology of the concept, examine contested ideas on what a green economy would entail and situate these proposals in relation to different economic approaches to the environment. It will suggest strategies for communicating the contested nature of the proposals and exposing obfuscations. This paper will argue that in stark opposition to green economics with its focus on participation and democratic processes, the UN’s GEP will close deliberations on the commons by privatizing ‘ecosystem services’ – thereby taking environmental decision-making out of a political sphere and into the marketplace.

The Green Economy (NOT!): The Final Frontier

Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ 

The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) (2011) flagship document titled “Towards a green economy: Pathways to sustainable development and poverty eradication” and accompanying UNEP reports at the Rio+20 in June 2012 launched the green economy project. The reports use strong environmental language as a means of presenting their version of green economy as a far-reaching programme of reform to address environmental problems on a global scale. While the rhetoric suggests that the UN is serious about addressing the biodiversity crisis, green economists and a wide variety of social movements are less convinced by the proposed policy mechanisms. Civil society responded at Rio+20 with a plethora of critical responses: condemning what they claimed amounted to the corporate capture of the United Nations (Joint Civil Society Statement, 2012); condemning the UN’s “Natural Capital Declaration” (Banktrack, 2012); condemning 20 years of Greenwash (Bruno, 2012); and indeed, condemning the entire green economy project (Nadal, 2012; Brand, 2012a; Patel & Crook, 2012). The Indigenous People’s Global Conference on Rio+20 and Mother Earth (2012) issued a strongly worded “Kari-Oca 2 Declaration” (2012) describing the UNEP’s green economy as “a continuation of colonialism” (p. 1) firmly rejecting market-based solutions, REDD, and intellectual property rights over genetic resources and traditional knowledge. In the wake of the polarized positions at Rio+20, the conference ended with both civil society and the United Nations unimpressed with the outcomes. The New York Times claimed Rio+20 “ended here as it began, under a shroud of withering criticism” (Romero & Broder, 2012); The Guardian’s headline read: “Rio+20 outcome a focal point for frustration among campaigners” (Ford, 2012); and London’s Financial Times announced “Rio+20 lacks ambition, says UN chief” (Clark, 2012). The conference failed to achieve binding targets, but more significantly the conference launched the UNEP’s green economy programme, which aims to redesign the processes through which the global commons will be managed. Clearly the green economy is a fiercely contested idea and the UNEP’s version is strongly opposed by a wide variety social movements concerned with both ecological conservation and environmental justice.

In naming its programme the green economy, the UNEP implies a reframing of the entire economy along green lines. The language even suggests a connection to a particular school of economic thought concerned with the environment, that of green economics. However, the programme itself is largely concerned with attempting to protect the environment by establishing policies that will quantify and trade “ecosystem services”. This will be done in ways that reflect specific policy prescriptions of different schools of economic thinking on the environment, namely environmental economics and ecological economics. Since green economics is a field with radically different policy prescriptions to what is proposed, the naming of the new project creates severe confusion with contested definitions of the “green economy”. In this paper, the UNEP’s green economy programme will be referred to as “UN’s GEP” to avoid confusion with what green economists have been describing as “green economics” for over a decade.

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Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design

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The paper ‘Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design’ has been accepted for the Design Research Society  // CUMULUS 2013 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers in May 2013. This paper is available for here for free but it will only be published and presented at the conference proceedings if I am able to find sponsors. THANK YOU to everyone who helped raise the money for this presentation! The crowdfunding campaign worked and I will present this paper in Oslo next month.

Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design

Abstract: Responsible design in an era of scarcity and risk associated with environmental problems must be ecologically informed. Ecological literacy is necessary in order to both understand the nature of environmental problems and to respond effectively by designing sustainable ways of living. Embedding ecological literacy into design education is happening at the most progressive institutions – and yet for many others, sustainability education is still virtually absent from the curriculum. Progress is slow despite the fact that natural scientists warn that risks will escalate if we do not take dramatic action. Ecological literacy is a severe challenge as it disrupts educational cultures and challenges basic assumptions about what constitutes good design. While sustainability can seem profoundly difficult, ecological learning is the basis for sustainable design and thus it is a basic imperative in design education. Design education needs to expand its scope of inquiry to include a range of disciplines in order to address complex environmental problems. This paper will present an introduction to ecological literacy for design education, describe six ecological principles including associated concepts in systems design, and explain why critical thinking is necessary to make the work of transforming structurally unsustainable systems possible.

Keywords: sustainability, philosophy, design education, knowledge, ecological literacy, epistemology, philosophy of design education, multidisciplinary design education

The paper can now be downloaded from the EcoLabs website here.

The slideshow of the presentation can be accessed here.Nature-Patterns2012M

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIG THANKS to everyone who made it happen by supporting the crowdfunding compaign. On Twitter you are: @Ian_Willey @blindspotting @hugh_knowles @karinjaschke @sDesignLabs @paul_chandlerUK @sorafferty and @jenboehnert. Some of you are not on Twitter (as far as I can tell) and you are Richard Owen Frost, Prof. Gregory Stock, Jonathan Crinion, Joel Davis, Ali Hodgson, Chris Kitchen and a few Anonymous contributors.

A Critical Look at RSA and TSB’s ‘New Designs for A Circular Economy’

In the UK social institutions maintain their legitimacy with claims that they are responding the environmental crisis with initiatives capable of transforming our economy into something that could exist in perpetuity. The single most important factor in the continued failure of the vast majority of initiatives is the dismal lack of ecological awareness demonstrated by those who put these projects into practice. A technologically advanced civilization that is not ecologically informed simply has no long-term prospects; it will not even understand the ways in which it is destroying itself. Businesses are keen to project the image that they are working towards a circular economy and dramatically lowering both pollution and quantitaties of natural resources needed in the industrial cycle. Are these flashy claims an honest representation of progress, or simply a new front for business as usual?

Re-thinking Progress: The Circular Economy by made2bemadeagain – The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

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Sustainability Literacy in Higher Education

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Basic sustainability literacy is an essential element of education. Without sustainability education, students are not supported to develop the knowledge that they will need to understand contemporary problems – or the skills they will need to address these problems. Considering global ecological conditions, it would be wise for higher education to create capacities across disciplines to respond to current problems. Unfortunately this is simply not happening on a significant scale (outside the disciplines that deal directly with the environment, i.e. conservation biology, the earth sciences and geography). Educational establishments create blind spots by failing to embed sustainability literacy in education. By not acknowledging environmental problems as an educational priority, higher education reproduces the problems of the past.  Educators remain oblivious to the ways in which their own practices further perpetuate environmental problems.

In the natural sciences, scientists are deeply concerned (an understatement in many cases) about the dangers of de-stabilised ecological systems. It is the responsibility of universities to develop capacities to respond, but most of those developing curriculum in design education would rather ignore inconvenient environmental imperatives. While I appreciate the difficulty that higher education is under right now, these problems pale in significance in comparison to the dangers presented by environmental problems. In fact, it will be impossible to achieve economic prosperity in the future without greater concern for environmental issues.

Many educators think sustainability is already part of what they do. Yet environmental problems are a result of an entire way of approaching knowledge that is ecologically ill-informed. Ecological and systems literacies are not divinely anointed, they are learned – like any discipline. They require their own curriculum, classes, research and expertise in design education. It cannot be delivered in a ‘Green Week’ fashion. This is simply greenwash. Education that refuses to engage critically with environmental problems is part of the problem.

Sustainability literacy should be a required element of any university degree at this point, but especially design education (for reasons I describe in my PhD). Any university that is not doing this is derelict in their responsibility to equip students with the knowledge they will need to deal with the world they will inherit. I have set up two Linkedin groups to discuss these problems in higher education  and a group for ecological literacy in design education.

Thanks for the inspiration here @blindspotting

2012: ‘The World is Not Ending. It is the Opposite’

Over the holidays I have read the latest Club of Rome report Bankrupting Nature. I did this not because I enjoy reading non-fiction over Christmas but because I am grateful for the time I have to celebrate and I am compelled to consider how others will be able to do the same considering the deterioration of global ecological systems.

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Two things became apparent: 1) the extinction crises is accelerating, 2) we have more knowledge and understanding than ever to address ecological and social crises. That second point was the good news. The bad news is that I can say with some confidence, as someone who works in London at the interface of environmental communication, ecological informed design and sustainability education, that we are simply not making the ecological crises a priority. Instead of using the wealth that is still abundant in this country to address environmental problems – we are squandering the opportunities we now have to catalyze transformation.

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With severe ecological destabilization, possibilities for future prosperity disappear. Yet in education and economic policy, the basic fact that we depend on the stability and abundance of the Earth is largely ignored. We are simply not building the social institutions that would enable social transformation. Part of the problem rests with the educational establishment; ecologically literacy is still marginal in higher education. For this reason, the capacity to understand, much less respond to current problems is extraordinarily low. This blog will review the state of our capacities for cultural transformation in the UK at the end of 2012 by looking (very briefly) at social institutions and social movements. I will start by proposing that we take note of the words of the Mayan people.

In 2012 we survived the final of all the anticipated ‘end of the worlds’ and the media typically simultaneously mocked and commercialized what became the spectacle of the end of Mayan Long Count calendar, the 5,125-year cycle that ended on 21 December 2012. A film called  ‘2012 The Mayan Word’ documented the voices of the Mayan people who had some potent things to say:

“The world is not ending. It is the opposite: we are finishing ourselves off…The prophecies are given for us to check ourselves. What are we doing? It’s clear that if we don’t do anything to recover the equilibrium of Mother Earth, we are digging our own grave” (Maria Amalia Mex Tu’n, 26 mins). Continue reading

The Green Economy (NOT!): The Final Frontier

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The UN’s Rio+20 declaration ‘The Future We Choose’ warns; ‘the scientific evidence is unequivocal…the time to act is now!’ With this document the UN calls for ‘a great transformation’ emerging from the recognition that business as usual is no longer sufficient. Humankind is now in the ‘Anthropocene’ wherein we must live within the ‘safe operating space of planetary boundaries’. Does this environmental rhetoric demonstrate that the UN is serious about addressing the biodiversity crisis? Or has the UN simply appropriated green language to sell its new project to the global public?

The so-called ‘Green Economy’ launched at Rio+20 reveals a new approach to sustainable development, based on creating new markets for nature’s processes. The basic provisions of the natural world are now ‘ecosystem services’ (water purification, plant pollination, carbon capture and maintenance of soil fertility, etc.). Presently free and commonly shared, the emerging programme will soon quantify, financialise and marketise them. The commodification of the natural world supposedly aims to protect nature by accounting for ‘externalities’ of environmental damage by industry. According to this logic, once nature’s processes are given a financial value, prices of goods and services will reflect ecological costs and it will no longer make economic sense to produce ecologically harmful products.

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‘One Planet’ Olympic Games 2012

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The Olympic Games 2012 won their bid partially on the concept of ‘One Planet Olympics’, meaning an Olympics that worked towards lowering its ecological footprint to a level where the earth’s bio-capacity is not diminished. The ecological footprint is a metric that allows us to calculate human pressure on the planet. Tolerance levels are determined by how much stress an ecological system is under due to resource extraction, pollution (including carbon emissions) and other human activities. A key awareness is that critical thresholds can provoke dramatic change and even collapse of ecosystems on various scales. The ‘One Planet’ concept is the challenge of living within the ecological carrying capacity of the earth, essential to avoid risks for civilization that result from destabilized ecosystems.

Unfortunately, the London Olympics Games 2012 are not the ‘One Planet Olympics’. Rather they an abuse of the concept of the concept of living within the Earth’s ecological boundaries. The UK government is spending £11billion+ on the Olympic Games but this same government cannot afford to fund a single independent environmental government watchdog. In 2010 the Sustainable Development Commission, the UK government’s only independent environmental body costing only £3million a year, was abolished. Grandiose green claims and pretensions to aspiring to ‘One Planet’ living are not supported by environmental infrastructure or government policy. Meanwhile the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales is having to dramatically cut staff. At the Olympics the WWF and BioRegional are helping the UK Government whitewash its image by using the ‘One Planet’ standard for an entirely unsustainable Olympics.

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Rio+20 – The Green Economy: Not what it appears!

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The language in the official UN documents promoting ‘The Green Economy’ published during the Rio+20 UN Conference for Sustainable Development last week is strikingly reflective of the language used by advocates of sustainability and even by social movements. In UN’s declaration ‘The Future We Choose’ certain phrases could have come from a Climate Camp press release; ‘the scientific evidence is unequivocal…the time to act is now!’ The document calls for ‘a great transformation’ and a recognition that business as usual is no longer sufficient in the Anthropocene’ wherein we must live within the ‘safe operating space of planetary boundaries’. Are we finally making progress?

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Unfortunately what we are witnessing is not progress but an undermining of decades worth of green politics by using of the language of environmentalism while rejecting any accompanying structural analysis of the origins of ecological problems. The UN Green Economy programme uses phrases and rhetorics devices of green movements. Unfortunately, these are neutered of political potential. The Green Economy is about creating new markets for ‘ecosystems services’, the basic provisions of the natural world, now considered ‘free’ such as water purification, plant pollination, carbon capture and maintenance of soil fertility. Creating new markets around these services sets the stage for the expansion of capitalism into the natural world – the global commons.

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The Green Economy is a programme of fixing prices for natural resources once regarded as free. Well-meaning ecologists, scientists and environmental policy makers are now working towards the construction of infrastructure for the financialisation and commodification of ecosystem services. These processes attempt to protect Nature by accounting for ‘externalities’ of environmental damage through economic processes.

Meanwhile, green theorists and social movements claim that without a macroeconomic analysis of the dynamics of neo-liberalism these policies initiatives will reproduce and even increase current problems. Tragically, by bringing neo-liberal economic mechanisms into the sphere of nature, the global commons will be subject to an intensification of exploitation.

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Alejandro Nadal, author of Rio+20: A Citizen’s Background Document, explains a fundamental error in the UN’s understanding of the management of the commons. The “global commons” is not what classical Romans called res nullius. Nadal explains that res nullius means that a thing has no owner and, therefore, anyone can appropriate it. Instead of having no owner, the global commons are commonly owned – they are res communis. The global commons must not be an object of private appropriation. We are a community – not commodities ripe for exploitation.

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Rio+20 – Saving Biodiversity or Capitalism?

‘Among the issues: What does moving from sustainable development to green economy mean? What is hidden behind this new concept of green economy: green growth? Green capitalism? Something else? What conclusions should we draw from these twenty years, while environmental degradation has accelerated, inequalities have widened and that democracies are being undermined? Which alternatives?’  – from Rio+20: From sustainable development to green economy, what is at stake? Which alternatives? by Alter-Echos 

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio+20 next week will address the crisis of biodiversity. Since the first UN conference at Rio in 1992 the UN has attempted to protect the natural world with policy initiatives based in a mistaken understanding of our relationship with the natural world. Even before the Rio 1992 critical environmentalists were aware of the short-comings of the ‘sustainable development’ as an approach for the conservation of nature. David Orton wrote;

Greens and environmentalists who today still use this concept [of sustainable development] display ecological illiteracy. There is a basic contradiction between the finiteness of the Earth, with natural self-regulating systems operating within limits, and the expansionary nature of industrial capitalist society. The language of sustainable development helps mask this fundamental contradiction, so that industrial expansion on a global scale can temporarily continue (Orton 1989).

In short, sustaining or increasing levels of consumption on the diminishing resource base with more people wanting ‘better’ lifestyles (i.e. more consumption) is not possible in the current context. It is not surprising that environmental problems continue to become more severe as policy makers continue to ignore material realities.

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Today we find ourselves at a situation where most of the proposals on the table at Rio+20 will only accelerate problems. Strategies promoting ‘the green economy’ create new markets within natural Continue reading

London Premier of ‘An Ecology of Mind’

Yesterday night I attended the London premier of Nora Bateson’s film: An Ecology of Mind: A Daughter’s Portrait of Gregory Bateson. Gregory Bateson has been described as ‘the most important thinker you’ve never heard of‘, an intellectual renegade who contributed to a variety of disciplinary traditions, earning him an array of diverse followers. Bateson fans are always independent thinkers, often ecological thinkers and sometimes critical thinkers. This blog will briefly review some main themes in Bateson’s legacy, its potential and hint at some of the issues that keep ecological thought from achieving its goals.

The event was organised by critical urban ecologist Jon Goodbun and hosted by the University of Westminster. Jon shares my interest in Gregory Bateson’s seminal work on the nature of mind, epistemological challenges to current ways of knowing and the critical importance of ecological thought in addressing contemporary challenges. Jon kindly invited me to sit on the panel with Nora Bateson, Iain Boal, Wendy Wheeler, Ranulph Glanville and Peter Reason after the screening.

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